The Dawn of the New Algae: cleaning up and enriching biofuels, with biofuels

October 18, 2011 |

Iowa algae and corn ethanol project points the way towards optimizing delivery of feed, fuel, carbon reduction.

In our 10-part series, the Bioenergy Project of the Future, based on extensive interviews with industry leaders, we outlined what is expected to be the multi-product, multi-input structure of biofuels and biomaterials projects in the future.

In step 1, we identified the acquisition of an existing first-generation ethanol plant as an appropriate base, because it had so many assets already in place, including a feedstock aggregation system, relations with growers and customers, rail lines, roads, water, power and so on.

In steps two through nine, project developers would add in a variety of inputs and outputs that would increase the product value, stabilize the input costs, and improve the carbon footprint and impact of the project.

2. Cellulosic biomass feedstock
3. Renewable chemicals
4. Advanced drop-in biofuels
5. Algal fuels and materials
6. Bio-ammonia
7. Renewable diesel
8. Lowest-cost waste feedstocks
9. Solar, wind and other renewables

Bioenergy Projects of the Future, today

The most complete realizations of that vision at scale, to date, are the POET Liberty Project in Emmetsburg, Iowa; the Gevo biobutanol project in Luverne, Minnesota; the Amyris SMA Indústria Química project in Brazil; and the Green Plains Renewable Energy project in Shenandoah, Iowa – in which an algal fuels and biomaterials project in underway in partnership with BioProcessAlgae.

The Green Plains project is by far the least-known of the three – given POET’s position as the largest privately-owned, dedicated ethanol producer, and given the deserved hoopla over Amyris’ and Gevo’s successful IPOs in the past year.

In the POET project, they have taken on the most direct route to the Bioenergy Project of the Future, by adding in  cellulosic biomass feedstock, and moving on to the production of fuels in 2013 when the 25 million gallons Project LIBERTY plant officially opens at scale.

In the Amyris project, they have established a joint venture with an existing 8.5 million tonne sugarcane ethanol project in Pradópolis, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, owned by Usina São Martinho. Starting in Q2 2012, Amyris and São Martinho plan for the joint venture plant to produce Biofene, a renewable hydrocarbon, which would be used as an ingredient in detergents, cosmetics, perfumes, industrial lubricants, and diesel. In their case, they are still testing out cellulosic feedstocks, but have added in renewable chemicals and renewable diesel to expand their high-value product portfolio.

In the Gevo project, they have acquired an existing corn ethanol plant as a base, and are busy converting that production over to isobutanol, which is scheduled to commence at-scale in March 2012. In the Gevo case, they have skipped over (for now) the addition of cellulosic feedstock, but likewise added in renewable chemicals and advanced drop-in fuels to diversify the product portfolio.

The Algae Option

Of all of them, the Green Plains Renewable Energy and BioProcess Algae project in Shenandoah is the first to reach step five of the multi-step transition we identified – which is to bolt-on an algal fuels and materials capability to an existing corn ethanol production system

It’s all still at relatively small-scale. The partners will have to prove they can sustainably produce, harvest and process the algae. But it’s significant in three ways, for sure.

First, it massively changes the carbon footprint and impact of a corn ethanol project. Almost one-third of the corn kernel, by weight, is transformed into carbon dioxide in the ethanol fermentation process, and the algae can remediate that usage by absorbing the CO2 in its own growth process. It’s not carbon sequestration – that’s different, because the algae itself will be utilized for fuels and biomaterials. But it is capture and re-use, or a second bite of the cherry, and dilutes the carbon impact by creating a second batch of fuels or materials for the same given bushel of corn.

(You may be wondering how they grow algae at all in the state of Iowa during the colder six months of the year, without using bioreactors that are simply too cost intensive. Ah, that’s where the process heat and steam that comes off an ethanol paint comes in handy.)

Second, it changes the economics of the corn ethanol project. Though it remains exposed to the commodity price swings in the corn market, except to the extent to which it can achieve fixed-price or partially-fixed contracts with growers – it is far less exposed to the commodity price of ethanol. Biodiesel, for example, comes into play, or other bio-based materials made from algae – omega-3 laden fatty acids, for example that make for rich protein.

More importantly, the economics of algae do not work unless a project is using the entire biomass – either for feed, to gasify for fuel, or to provide energy back to the system. So, making algae work as a feed system is important to the economics.

Third, making algae work as a secondary feed source can substantially add to the feed options available to the meat and dairy industries, that have been sore as heck in having to compete with ethanol plants for corn-based feed, and have been running a first class, textbook “fear, uncertainty and doubt” campaign against ethanol that has befooled and beguiled, apparently, most of the US Congress.

So – for many reasons, one of the big question marks is whether algae strains that can tolerate industrial gases will work as an animal feed.

The big question: will it work as animal feed?

So it is significant that, yesterday, Green Plains Renewable Energy and BioProcess Algae announced the successful completion of the first round of algae-based poultry feed trials. The algae strains produced for the feed trials demonstrated high energy and protein content that was readily available, similar to other high value feed products used in the feeding of poultry today.

The algae strains used in the feed trials were grown in BioProcess Algae’s Grower Harvester reactors co-located with Green Plains’ ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa. The test was conducted in conjunction with the University of Illinois led by Dr. Carl M. Parsons, a leading expert in the field of poultry sciences.

“This was the first time we tested algae as a poultry feed-product and many of the qualities found were similar to high protein soymeal, but with higher energy content,” said Dr. Parsons. In addition to the high energy and protein content, the testing found amino acid profiles similar to existing feed components. The University of Missouri analyzed the results and provided an independent third-party validation.

“Based on these first-round tests, we will continue the development of this and other high-quality animal feed products from our algae. We will proceed with further testing for poultry and begin evaluating a replacement product for fishmeal,” said Tim Burns, Chief Executive Officer of BioProcess Algae. “We can now look into the opportunity to use algae as a ‘carrier’ for higher value products going into poultry feed such as Omega-3s.”

Next steps

So, there’s reason for increased optimism on the algal fuels and materials front. Next steps for BioProcess Algae include further feed trials, and more importantly, continuing to knock down the production cost. Their current costs, at the scale they are producing, are sure to be too high, but how fast they knock them down in their science of growth and engineering of a low-cost production system will be key. We expect that, if they had a path to parity with $80 oil already figured out, the public might well have heard about it.

For now, we stay tuned.

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